Whatever Happened to Singing in Church? Part 5: Musical Factors
Note: This is the fifth and final post in a 5-part series examining the important but rarely-discussed question of why people don’t sing as much in church anymore. You can check out the previous posts below.
In the first four posts, I shared reasons why singing is an important part of our faith, as well as several cultural, environmental, and leadership factors that have impacted singing in worship.
In this post, we’ll look at three musical factors that can impact people’s engagement, as well as some simple solutions.
1. People don’t know the songs very well.
How many times does someone need to hear a song before they know it well and consider it a meaningful part of their worship? There’s no set answer because everyone is different and every church has its own culture. But we can assume that the average person needs to hear a song at least a few times before they’re familiar with it.
In the last post, I mentioned the need for a worship leader to have a pastoral approach to their ministry. The issue of song frequency is one area where that issue comes into play. Let me explain.
Anyone who has been in a modern worship service during the last decade has probably heard Chris Tomlin’s song “How Great is Our God.” It is one of the most popular worship songs in the world, and for good reason: it’s simple, singable, easy to play, and easy to learn.
But from a musical perspective, it’s not very fun or challenging. It only has four chords that repeat in mostly the same pattern on the verses, chorus, and bridge. Any worship leader or worship team member would get tired of playing it pretty quickly.
That’s where the pastoral element comes into play. By the time a congregation hears a new worship song for the first time, the worship team has listened to it ad nauseam. By the time it has been used in a worship service a few times, the worship team is completely sick of it.
But it goes back to the purpose of leading worship: to facilitate and support congregational singing. Musicians who are looking to get all of their creative enjoyment from playing in a worship band might be disappointed. Why? Because they are not always going to be playing music that is artistically satisfying.
That’s not the point, however. The point is to do what is best for the congregation, and that is probably going to be leading songs like “How Great is Our God,” which people still love. And that’s precisely what I love about Chris Tomlin’s music: he writes it with congregations and worship teams in mind.
So we have to think, plan, and lead with our “pastor” hat, and not just with our “artist” hat. From an artistic enjoyment perspective, using the same song repeatedly is not much fun (especially if it’s a simple song). But from a pastoral perspective, it’s very effective in helping people learn a new so it becomes part of their worship vocabulary.
What you can do about it:
Cut down your list of worship songs, and don’t introduce a lot of new songs in a short amount of time. This has several benefits.
First, the congregation will know the songs better since there will be fewer of them.
Second, the musicians will be more effective since there is a limited number of songs they need to know well.
Third, it simplifies the worship planning process. When you have forty songs in your rotation instead of a hundred, it limits your options, which can be a good thing.
Why forty songs? It’s not a magic number, but several worship leaders have told me that’s enough to have variety, yet still be manageable for the musicians and congregation to learn. Maybe thirty songs is even better.
2. The songs are too complicated.
I’ve already hit on this point in talking about “How Great is Our God,” but song frequency and song complexity are two different things, so I’ve separated them.
When I say “songs are too complicated,” what I really mean is that some popular worship songs today are too complicated for the average person to learn … when they only hear them 1-2 times a month. And that’s if they are in church every Sunday.
You might come back with an argument that says something like this: “Why can people sing every line of every song when they attend a concert, or when they listen to the radio?” The reason is that they have heard those songs dozens, if not hundreds of times. People know the songs they love by heart.
My son has virtually memorized the lyrics to “Hamilton.” That’s almost 2.5 hours of complex, dense lyrics. So how can a 12-year old memorize something like that, but people in church can’t seem to learn simple worship songs nearly as fast? Because they’re only hearing them in church.
What you can do about it:
The solution here will somewhat depend on the church and the musicians available. Some churches can pull off highly complex arrangements, while others can’t. Whatever musical resources you have, it’s important to keep things simple and singable. There is reason why “How Great is Our God” is so popular.
Modern worship songs tend to be long, and I wonder if there a place for some shorter ones that we can add to the mix to simplify things a bit.
Something else to consider is listing the worship songs in the printed worship program. I’ve seen churches do this, and it’s a great idea. This way people can remember what songs were used in worship and find them later if they choose. Every little bit helps.
3. The songs are in a key that is too high.
A good chunk of modern worship songs are written, sung, and recorded by male tenors whose voices are higher than the average guy’s. Because most worship leaders tend to be male tenors, they use the same or similar keys as the original recordings. The result is that the average guy in church in trying to sing in a key that’s too high for them.
Lest you think I’m being sexist, here’s why that could be an issue for participation. In my experience, women will always sing, no matter what key you use. Even if it’s in a key that doesn’t feel natural, they will participate.
Guys, however, will just stop singing if they have to sing too high or too low. And if many guys stop singing, you’ve lost a big portion of the “vocal power” of congregational worship.
I’m not saying it’s right or wrong—I’m just saying that’s the way it is.
What you can do about it:
A good rule of thumb is to use a key that doesn’t take the melody higher than a D or E above middle C. It’s not a hard-and-fast rule, but in general it has proven useful. This might entail lowering the key of a song a bit, but with modern tools like SongSelect and Planning Center Online, it’s easy to change the keys of chord charts.
I am prepared to change my mind on this issue, though. Here’s why: I don’t believe a female worship leader should have to lead songs in a key that doesn’t work for her. She may have to use keys that are completely different than her male counterparts, and that is perfectly fine.
That probably seems like I’m completely backtracking on everything I just said, and that might be the case. In my experience, some songs work better in certain keys than others. However, as we continue to see more equality among worship leaders (which is a great thing, since males have dominated this field for a long time), we will need to rethink our assumptions. And that’s a good thing.
I hope you’ve enjoyed this series on singing in the church. I’ve done my best to present some factors that have affected singing in modern congregations. Regardless of whether you agree with me, I do hope it has given you some food for thought.
Let me hear from you. Do you think these musical factors prevent people from participating in worship? What are some other factors, and what solutions do you have in mind?